Judge Strikes Down Census Citizenship Question

By: - January 15, 2019 12:00 am

The Brickell neighborhood in downtown Miami. Republican lawmakers in the area have criticized the addition of a citizenship question to the census, saying it would cause an undercount that would cost Florida congressional representation and millions of dollars. Sam Navarro/Miami Herald via AP

A New York federal judge struck down the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census for now, saying Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has failed to make a case for asking all U.S. residents whether they are citizens.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman ruled that there wasn’t enough evidence the question needs to be asked, since Ross apparently made up his mind to add the question long before a 2017 request from the Justice Department to do so.

Reliance on such a pretext violates the administration’s legal duty to take action that is “reasonable and reasonably explained,” Furman ruled.

“This ruling is a forceful rebuke of the Trump administration’s attempt to weaponize the census for an attack on immigrant communities,” said Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights project.

Immigration hardliners did not see it that way.

“It’s bizarre that anyone would fight the government’s request to collect data on basic information like citizenship,” said Jessica Vaughn, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration.

Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst for the nonpartisan Migration Policy Center, said the ruling follows a familiar pattern for the Trump administration in other court challenges like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and the travel ban policies.

“They have every right to add the question, it’s just the process they keep getting hung up on. They can’t do it the way they tried to do it,” Pierce said. “In all likelihood it will end up before the Supreme Court just because there are so many cases.”

Ross announced the decision to add the question to the decennial census, for the first time since 1950, last March. He cited a letter from the Justice Department requesting the question in order to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Lawsuits followed in New York as well as Maryland, California and the District of Columbia.

A week before the 2018 decision to add the question, the Republican National Committee sent an email to Trump supporters calling it “common sense” to “ask people whether or not they are citizens.”

Some Republicans in immigrant-rich areas like Miami and Arizona have balked at the idea, saying it would deprive cities of representation and funding if immigrants hesitate to stand up and be counted.

Judge Furman cited email traffic indicating Ross made up his mind by May 2017, long before the Justice Department asked for the question, and sought help from the Justice Department under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to justify the decision with a request for the citizenship question.

The question was supported by many GOP officials, especially in red states where some have lobbied for excluding noncitizens from population tallies used in redistricting in order to reduce the influence of immigrants on politicians.

At the time of the decision to add the question, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, said, “We always are better off having an accurate count of citizens versus noncitizens. I see no downside in this.”

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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson covers demographics for Stateline. He has been a reporter at the Miami Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Journal News.